Deyon Kaigler said in December that he was done stealing cars. His friends were still posting videos of high-speed joyrides to Facebook, wearing key fobs on lanyards around their necks. But Deyon, 16, had decided it was too dangerous.
"I value my life," he said. "I'm not trying to be dead."
Just eight months later, on Sunday morning, three boys died and Deyon was led away in handcuffs after a fiery, high-speed crash sent a stolen Ford Explorer pinwheeling through the air down Tampa Road in Palm Harbor, bursting into flames.
Eight teenage car thieves from Pinellas have now died in the past two years, and dozens of innocent people have been injured, amid a juvenile auto theft epidemic so pervasive that even kids who vow to stop are then climbing back into stolen cars.
"When you have 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds that are dying because of their actions, it needs to stop," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. "This is a deadly game."
The boys who died in the Ford Explorer were driving more than 100 mph, playing a "cat and mouse" game with another stolen car at 4:40 a.m., before they likely ran a red light and hit the Toyota Camry of a 29-year-old man on his way to work, the sheriff said.
Both the Ford Explorer and the Chrysler Sebring it was speeding with were stolen Thursday from a car dealership in Clearwater. Deputies spotted the vehicles early Sunday morning turning into a subdivision in Oldsmar, where there had been a recent rash of burglaries.
The cars were then spotted on Tampa Road. They split up, and the Explorer hit the Camry before smashing into a billboard pole and several parked cars, spinning and rolling down Tampa Road in flames. Two of the dead boys were found in the wreckage; the third had been thrown onto the street.
The boys who died were identified as Jimmie Goshey, 14; Dejarae Thomas, 16; and Keontae Brown, 16. Keontae's brother, 14-year-old Keondrae Brown, was also in the SUV but survived. He was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and was in stable condition Sunday.
Deputies found the Chrysler Sebring at Sunset Point and Keene roads in Clearwater. Kamal Campbell, 18, and Deyon were taken into custody and face charges of grand theft auto and resisting arrest without violence.
The driver of the Camry, Ricky Melendez Jr., suffered a fractured ankle and tibia, as well as a broken collarbone, according to his father.
"My heart just dropped," Ricky Melendez Sr. said. "After looking at the crash, I don't know how he survived."
Chris Urso | Times
A continuing epidemic
Local officials said the deaths were a tragic but inevitable consequence of the ongoing auto theft problem.
"This scenario plays out daily throughout Pinellas County," Gualtieri said. "The only difference between what didn't happen yesterday and the day before that and the day before that is they didn't roll, hit a car and get killed."
In March 2016, three teenage girls from St. Petersburg died when they crashed a stolen car into a cemetery pond while trying to flee from deputies.
The epidemic was recently the subject of "Hot Wheels," a Tampa Bay Times series that found that Pinellas kids driving stolen cars crash at least every four days. Teenagers here have made a sport of "car-hopping," walking neighborhood streets looking for unlocked cars with keys left inside to steal. In 2015, police in Pinellas arrested juveniles 499 times for grand theft auto, more than in any other Florida county.
Reporters spoke with judges, police, lawyers, victims and the young car thieves themselves, who said that auto theft has become popular because kids don't see many consequences after they're caught.
Each of the teens involved in Sunday's crash had "extremely extensive criminal histories"; several had committed car thefts like those chronicled in the Times series, the sheriff said. Many young car thieves wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints while they car-hop; one of the boys died still wearing his.
Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter called the deaths "senseless."
"Many have worked so hard to avoid this inevitable tragedy," Slaughter said. "The juvenile justice system needs to do a better job with conducting juvenile risk assessments so chronic offenders who are endangering the public, and themselves, can be reasonably detained."
Keontae's grandfather, Sylvester Brown, said the boy was released from custody just days earlier.
Brown said he wishes the juvenile system had been tougher on his grandson. "Why did they let him go like that?" he asked. "They should be more hard on them."
Keontae's father, Adontai, said his son "was doing something he shouldn't have."
"I admit that — I'm not going to sit around here and sugarcoat and say he's the best kid in the world," the dad said. "He had his problems, he did stuff that he wasn't supposed to do, (but) he's still a kid. He's still a child."
He added that it's difficult to parent a child who has no respect for the courts.
"If they keep getting away with it, you think they're going to respect the parent? No."
Jimmie's cousin Aja Jenkins said the boy played football growing up.
"He was loving. He was kind," said Jenkins, 23. "He had a good heart. … (Jimmie) fell into the wrong crowd."
Another 'wake-up call'
Public officials who have been meeting to brainstorm solutions to the car theft problem said they were "heartbroken" and "at a loss."
"These kids slipped through the cracks again," said State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island. "Somehow, whatever it is we're doing did not protect them."
"We need to intervene before it becomes another tragedy in our community, and we've seen far too much of this," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "If anyone felt sheltered, this should, I think, be a wake-up call that we're all invested in this. We're all invested in trying to reach these young people."
Welch described the problem as "a combination of a lack of consequence in the legal system, a lack of intervention by the community, parents, everyone, to get to these kids early.
"It's only a miracle that more innocent folks haven't died so far," he said. "But I think it's still a ticking time bomb."
Pat Gerard, another county commissioner and former Largo mayor, said she was frustrated that Pinellas "wasn't getting a handle" on the epidemic. "Hopefully this is a warning to the other kids that are doing this that, gee, they're taking their lives in their hands," she said. "We have a small group of kids who are making a big game out of this. And the game's turning deadly. And it's just not funny anymore. It never was funny."
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, has pledged federal funding for activities that would engage Pinellas youth who are turning to crime. He said he is "praying" for the families of the boys and for the community, as well as planning an Aug. 24 roundtable with local teenagers to talk about why they steal cars and what would make them stop.
'I cannot bury my child'
Deyon's mother, Demetria Coley, said her son was doing well for a while. She had helped him get a job at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Dunedin. She moved houses, hoping to get him away from a bad crowd.
He started getting in trouble once more in early July, running with the wrong kids again, she said. "I keep telling him don't go with them, they are not your friends."
Deyon, who spoke to the Times in December for the Hot Wheels series, was arrested for grand theft auto again last month, and was later sent home with an ankle monitor. It was removed about five days before the crash, his mom said.
On Saturday night, Deyon ordered a pizza for dinner and ate it in his room. She thinks he must have slipped out after she went to sleep.
A single mother, Coley said she has begged judges and the juvenile system to do more to help her and to make her child see the consequences of his crimes.
"That's why these children are dying. Because they keep slapping them on the hand," she said. "I buried my mama, my grandma, my daddy. I'm the only child. And I'm all Deyon's got. And this is what he's taking me through.
"I cannot bury my child. They need to help me to help save his life."
Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lisagartner. Contact Laura C. Morel at email@example.com. Follow @lauracmorel. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @zacksampson.
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